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Saturday, 1 June 2013

On the question of frailty

Growing old is hard. All of a sudden, you go from being a brat who cannot be trusted to wipe his own nose, into this entity who can't just take care of his life but is also expected to 'do his bit' for the family. Yes, it is hard. 
But, undoubtedly, one of the hardest things about growing up is realizing the fact that your parents are not that breed of super-humans who never grow old or weak. That moment when you realize that your parents are just as human as the rest and are indeed being ravaged by the cruelties of nature and old-age is one of the most painful moments of growing up. It is a rite of passage that is as devastating as it is permanent.


Luckily for me, I only have to worry about one parent's incipient frailty and old age. Having lost my father when I was 11, my idea of my father as a youthful, strong, vibrant man is preserved from the vagaries of nature. In an odd way, I am grateful for that now. My mother, whose body has never been strong enough to cope with the immense vitality of her being, is starting to exhibit the tell-tale signs of old-age. Her hearing is not the same as before, she struggles with lifting groceries and her razor-sharp memory which could once recollect where I had strewn every bit of my stationary, is now starting to fray at the edges. Yes, my mother is growing old. It is hard to accept that, but I have to.


It looks like the heavens have been split open over Bangalore today. It has been raining non-stop for over 5 hours now. Unlike the cyclonic rains that occasionally hit Chennai i.e. the kind of rain that bursts much like popping a water-filled balloon; today's rain is different. It is steady, calm, confident and strong. I find such weather to stir within me, memories which I had long given up as forgotten. My mind seems to become fecund for epiphanies and extraordinary connections. Unsurprisingly, today's weather brought back an odd little memory. A memory whose significance has been bolstered by my current concerns of parental old-age.


We had just moved to Kolkata. My dad had just died and no one in the family really understood why my mother decided to take her son and aged mother-in-law to a city that was thousands of kms away and completely off the radar of our lives. But move we did. On my very second day in Kolkata, my mother got me admitted into my new school. After an eventful first day (about which I hope to blog about sometime in the future), I got out of school at 3 pm to find my mother waiting by the gate with an umbrella. It was the month of June and Kolkata was bearing the brunt of the monsoons. No Chennaite can ever appreciate the force of nature that is the monsoon without having lived at least once in its path. I was spell-bound by the rain! It was incessant but disturbingly quiet. It almost felt like the Rain God felt bad about inconveniencing people for clogging their sewers and turning their roads into swimming pools, so He decided to do it silently! But I digress.

So I saw my mother as she stood hunched below an umbrella waiting for me. I ran up to her. Apparently she had arranged a private bus service to ferry me from school to home and we were to go home on it. It was a huge, green bus, filled to the brim with kids and being the first day of school, quite a few parents as well. Apart from the driver, the bus had a 'Conductor' who was the de facto disciplinarian of the bus. Kids tend to go crazy within school buses and end up doing the most atrocious stunts, so you need a strongman to hold them to their seats to ensure everybody gets home safe and soon. He was small, bespectacled man with oily hair. He was called Samantha Sen. It's strange indeed how I remember him so vividly when even some of my close friends have now turned into unrecognisable shreds of memory.

Samantha Sen seemed kind enough. He had realized that neither my mom nor I could speak a word of Hindi or Bengali and his English was limited to bus terminology. He gestured to us to occupy a pair of seats at the end of the bus.

The bus soon took off and it wound its way across the new city. Being just a day into the city, we had no idea where we were and were hoping for the conductor to inform us when our stop came. An hour into the journey, my mother realized that something was wrong, so she carefully made her way to the front of the bus and enquired about our home stop. Samantha jumped up in fury! Turned out our stop had been passed more than 20 mins back. He directed the driver to stop the bus and asked us to get down there and take a normal bus back. My mother was taken aback. I imagine that Samantha saw the look of incomprehension and fatigue on my mother's face and the pouring rain outside, and something gave way inside him. He asked the driver to take a U-turn at the next junction.

It was now the driver's turn to get angry. He loudly refused to turn back and passed remarks which sounded racist and hurtful even to my unknowing ears. A loud verbal disagreement ensued and fortunately Samantha won. The bus turned back and soon we were dropped off closer to our stop. As we got down, Samantha came close to my mother and asked her to walk straight down the road till we reached our home neighbourhood. I can still see the apologies his bespectacled eyes shed which his words could not share.

That long walk back home is one of my most melancholic of memories. Huddled under one umbrella, hopping and skirting over puddles and pot-holes on an empty road, I had never shared a more alone time with my mother. And suddenly, I realized the immense frailty of my mother whom up until that point I considered an avatar of Wonder Woman. Once the dam of superstardom that I had constructed around my mother started on its first crack, the whole structure came down. Immediately the gravity of my father's death sunk. You see, when he had passed away, I knew I was expected to grieve but grieve I could not. Even as his cold body was in front of me, I could hardly find meaning within me to lament. But noticing that evening of frailty in my mother, I began to understand the extraordinary, unpredictable sequence of events that had lead to my mother and I sharing that old umbrella down that clogged road. It was a walk of discovery.

From that point onwards, my childish sensibility changed my life into an arena, one where it was my mother and I versus the rest. I began to consider my life as an exercise in forging the safety of my family against the rains and storms of life. It seemed to be the noblest of efforts and the most logical as well for a long time.

Eventually I grew up and it became 'my' life again, up to such an extent that I needed 5 hours of rain to bring back this memory which had such a bearing on me at that moment.


I don't know what to make of this memory. It is not the happiest of recollections. It is overloaded with the sense of human frailty and death but at the same time, there is a certain poignancy to it which I cannot stop admiring. I discovered the emotional fatigue in my parent many years before my peers and foolishly I attempted to wage a war on it. I like to think that I won, for a while at least.